DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli in for Terry Gross. The Showtime drama series "Billions," starring Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis, began its fourth season this week. It's a drama about state and federal politicians and prosecutors and manipulative Wall Street billionaires. I usually don't return to TV series this far into their runs, but there are two reasons in particular to give "Billions" another look and another helping of praise.
One is that because of events in the real world since the series was launched in the election year of 2016, "Billions" has become almost astoundingly relevant. Its main characters and conflicts include prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, opportunistic and wealthy power players and even media-dominating lawyers and powerful Russian oligarchs. That's one reason.
The other reason is that the writing, the acting and the directing on "Billions," all of which started at a very high level, have gotten even better each season. And for Season 4, all the chess pieces are being moved around. Former foes are now allies. Formerly tight relationships are now shaken to the core. And new players keep being introduced, adding even more fire and explosiveness to the mix.
There's an exciting byproduct to all this change. Paul Giamatti from HBO's "John Adams" plays Chuck Rhoades, a former federal prosecutor who's now running for state attorney general. Damian Lewis from Showtime's "Homeland" plays Bobby Axelrod, the Wall Street tycoon whom Rhoades spent years investigating and prosecuting.
But now they're on the same side, which means these two powerhouse actors get to share many more scenes. And Maggie Siff, Maggie Siff, who plays Chuck's wife, Wendy, and a psychological counselor to Axelrod and his firm, finally gets to take center stage as the new season unfurls. Her husband's campaign for attorney general is proceeding nicely.
But this season, a rival politician blackmails Chuck into dropping out of the race, or he'll release some potentially damaging personal information, namely that Chuck and his wife privately engage in sadomasochistic sex play with her as the dominant. Initially Chuck is willing to risk that public disclosure but not Wendy.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "BILLIONS")
MAGGIE SIFF: (As Wendy Rhoades) And don't forget part of you wants the humiliation, needs it. But I don't. I can't live with it. I won't live it. We cannot take the chance that Foley is serious.
PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Charles Rhoades) Oh, he's serious.
SIFF: (As Wendy Rhoades) Then that's it, Chuck.
GIAMATTI: (As Charles Rhoades) And that you can live with - me just capitulating in silence.
SIFF: (AS Wendy Rhoades) I can, and so can you. You have to. Walk away.
GIAMATTI: (As Charles Rhoades) I just want to scream, Wend.
SIFF: (As Wendy Rhoades) At the situation or at me?
GIAMATTI: (As Charles Rhoades) Yes.
SIFF: (As Wendy Rhoades) I know. And if you need to do that to move on, then do it. But then sure as [expletive] move on.
BIANCULLI: It seems like everywhere Chuck turns this season, he's up against another problem, another threat, another powerful person. John Malkovich in a recurring role as a Russian oligarch is one of them and seems to get more sinister the quieter he speaks. Even when Chuck threatens to expel him from the country, Malkovich's Grigor seems to maintain a lot of the power.
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JOHN MALKOVICH: (As Grigor Andolov) There are so many ways we could have met. It is unfortunate you chose this one.
GIAMATTI: (As Charles Rhoades) Like the musician says of the piece he plays, it chose me.
MALKOVICH: (As Grigor Andolov) Did it? Or are you doing favors for friends on the high - because you must know that I am higher than any other friend you could imagine, and my friends are higher still.
GIAMATTI: (As Charles Rhoades) That notwithstanding, your business interests have been connected with blacklisted governments, and the paperwork is prepared to have you declared an unregistered foreign agent with intent against ours. There's only one choice that will preclude that - you firing up your private samolyot and flying home or wherever else it is you call home.
BIANCULLI: Almost everywhere you turn on "Billions," there are colorful characters, intense conflicts and captivating performances. Watch in particular this season for Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor Mason, a former protege of Axelrod's who's now a Wall Street rival. And new arrival Nina Arianda, the wonderful actress from Broadway's "Venus In Fur," as Rebecca, yet another confident, commanding Wall Street player.
Yet "Billions," now four seasons in, has yet to be noticed at all by the Emmy voters. Forget wins. The show and its dynamic lead and supporting and guest actors have never even been nominated. Given the overall excellence of "Billions," which was created by Brian Koppelman, and David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin, that's a TV travesty. But it's a travesty with a long tradition of great shows all but ignored by the TV Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Remember Tom Fontana's groundbreaking HBO prison drama "Oz" - amazing acting throughout, yet it received only one nomination for guest actor. FX's "The Shield" - star Michael Chiklis was nominated only the first year even though he won, and his brilliant co-star, Walton Goggins, was never even nominated. In HBO's Western "Deadwood," Ian McShane was nominated only once, and so many other great actors, including Timothy Olyphant, never even got a nod.
And both Olyphant and Goggins were ignored for their work in FX's "Justified" though some guest actors won Emmys. So the voters were watching just not paying attention. HBO is bringing "Deadwood" back as a movie in May, so that's exciting news. But "Billions" shouldn't have to wait for a revival to get its due. Like those other series I just mentioned, "Billions" is television at its best. Attention must be paid.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MISIRILOU")
DICK DALE: (Vocalizing).
BIANCULLI: Coming up - a tribute to Dick Dale, the creator of the surf rock guitar sound who died last Saturday at age 81. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.